Saturday, January 19, 2008

The AFC Championship: Mismatch or Upset-in-Waiting?

A lot of people, myself included, were hoping for the Colts/Patriots rematch in this game, but I imagine it gets as irritating to non-fans of these teams as Yankees/Red Sox ALCS match-ups are for me. Of course, everyone knows how that one ended -- Tom Brady picked with less than two minutes to go seals the championship for Indy, the Colts go to Florida and beat the Bears to put to rest the talk that Peyton Manning can't win the big one. This year, the Chargers knocked the champs for a loop, continuing a hot streak that has seen them lose exactly once since November 18, 24-17 to the Jaguars; they then ripped off eight straight. They then set themselves up for a clash with the big dogs of the AFC, who everyone assumed would be here, and they open as 14-point underdogs. Will the game really be that much of a blowout? Sure, the Pats handled the Chargers with little trouble in Week 2, 34-17, but that could end up meaning as much as the fact that the Rockies won two of three from the Red Sox in June. This is a completely different Chargers team brimming with self-confidence, completely sure that they are the rightful champs of the AFC -- and if they beat the Colts and the Pats to claim that title, they will sure as hell have earned it, my virulent distaste for them aside.

How The Chargers Can Win:

Hope that LaDainian Tomlinson's knee is back to normal and he can plow through piles with typical LT-like verve. Everyone yaps up the fact that the Patriots' run defense isn't the greatest, but in all honesty, does it matter that much if they have that incredible offense that can score seemingly at will? And yes, we know the Patriots are flawed, but the fact remains, they still haven't lost and everyone on the Chargers is going to be playing at top effort. If LT can barrage the defense, get them worked out and worn out, he is also capable of taking off and making this one a lot more uncomfortable than the 60,000-odd screaming Bostonites packing Gillette would like.

2. Have Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman do their job -- namingly, blitzing the quarterback. Tom Brady is dangerous even when he's hurried, and if he has all day, he will select receivers as he wishes and throw for three or four TDs. -- which will make the spread even larger than it's projected to be. Merriman and Phillips make a formidable duo that has racked up a combined total of 20 sacks on the season (almost half of the team's total 42) and if they can finally crack the hermetically-sealed pocket that's protected Brady this year, they can rush him, try to force him into mistakes, and have a chance at least of making him throw a bad pass that ball-hawking cornerback Antonio Cromartie, with 10 interceptions, can pick off. Brady, despite all appearances to the contrary, is human, and last year in the divisional playoffs against the Chargers, he was picked three times. Of course, the Patriots won that one, but still.

3. Take advantage of the fact that they're one of the best defenses New England's going to face this year. Capable of defending both the run and the pass, San Diego isn't going to focus exclusively on Brady and let Laurence Maroney run wild on them, or vice versa. If the Patriots only pass, pass, pass, then the defense is going to pick that up quickly, but since that's not likely to happen, they're able to put up a strong front against the multi-pronged New England attack. The Patriots, to no one's surprise, rank first in passing yards (295.7) but a slightly more distant 13th in the run with 115.6.

4. Put together long, clock-chewing drives. The Pats defense is good, as it should be for a 16-0 team, but the offense is the real wheels for New England. Everybody says it, but you have to do it -- the Chargers need to keep the ball and play mistake-free football, with no interceptions, turnovers, fumbles, three-and-outs, or boneheaded passes into double coverage. The longer you can keep Brady and Co. off the field, the better your chances, and since the Chargers matched up so evenly against the Colts and put Peyton Manning out of action for long stretches at a time, they'll need to do the same thing here.

5. Just go out there and play their game. The pressure is all on the Patriots -- a loss will spoil their perfect year and cloud the 16-0 with the legacy of a second consecutive post-season choke. Also, the Chargers have history on their side -- the last time that the Patriots were riding a historic win streak (consecutive victories at home) the Chargers came into Foxborough and KO'd them 41-17. The Chargers are enormously confident and are playing their best football of the year, but will that be enough? Wait and see. I'll be on a plane somewhere over the Midwest while this is going on -- I may be able to check in at the airport in Minneapolis, but I'm not sure. I can't believe I have to miss this one.

How The Patriots Can Win:

This is clearly a lot easier for them. They're 17-0, at home, playing in a way that has various pundits nominating them for Best Team Ever, and are more focused, determined, and dedicated than ever to ensuring that their historic streak doesn't end messily at the hands of a supposedly inferior opponent. They're 14-point favorites (but don't tell them that, Bill Belichick has been beating it out of their heads for the past week). They have the reigning MVP putting together an otherworldly season, surrounded by A-caliber talent and a collective chew-through-steel mentality.

2. If Philip Rivers' sore right knee isn't up to par (although he's optimistic he'll be able to play) the Chargers will start Billy Volek, their backup. This surprisingly isn't as much of a handicap as you might think -- Eagles backup A.J. Feeley looked positively Hall of Fame-caliber against the Patriots in a victory that they just squeaked out, 31-28. But let's be honest, Billy Volek and the Bolts putting down Tom Brady and the Pats would be something worthy of a sports movie. It could happen, but if Volek has to start, the spread gets larger. Asante Samuel is the Pats' biggest INT threat, nabbing 6 on the year.

3. Use the Chargers' excitement and energy against them. San Diego is going to come out of the gate fired up, while the Pats will come out with their typical steely-eyed intensity. If they can get the Bolts to make emotional mistakes, they can get another leg up.

4. Constantly test whether or not LT's knee is up to scratch. It'll fall to the linebackers -- Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas, and Junior Seau -- to keep on stuffing LT so he can only pick up short gains, and if they can bang him up again early, that's a huge loss for the Chargers. I don't expect LT will want to miss a game of this magnitude, so he'll insist on playing. The same corps, owner of 24 total sacks on the season, will want to test the Chargers' O-line early and often. Even if Rivers is playing, he can be more easily coerced into making mistakes than Brady.

5. Stop the Chargers on third-down conversions. The Bolts have been excellent at converting any third-down situation in the playoffs -- third and short, third and fifteen, whatever -- and if the Patriots can stop that, they can both collect takeaways and get the extraordinary machine known as their offense back on the field with good position. Prospects are dim for the Bolts if Tom Brady is spending more time in the pocket than on the bench.

Who Wins? Patriots, but not by much.

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